Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Storyteller's Happy Ending: Big Fish Is Strangely Mediocre.

The Good: Excellent cast, Decent acting, Interesting characters
The Bad: Plot is not engaging, Quirky for quirky sake
The Basics: In a Johnny Depp-less Tim Burton movie, a young man attempts to piece together his father's life, outside the tall tales he has been told all his life.

First of all, I have been a bit of a fan of Tim Burton's work since Beetlejuice. I think Batman Returns was his masterpiece and I was impressed by the depressing Edward Scissorhands. I even gave The Nightmare Before Christmas a fair shot, though I didn't like it. But in my mind, Tim Burton is synonymous with darkness. When I see a Burton film, I am expecting big, dark, thematically heavy and powerful. I ended up agonizing over this review because my first instinct was to dislike Big Fish. The more I thought about it, however, the more I understood that I was punishing Tim Burton for trying something new. Big Fish is not Burton's sellout, it's his attempt to break his own mold and push off in a new direction. And he, despite my personal preferences, succeeds.

As Ed Bloom lays dying, his son William makes a last attempt to piece together his father's life. His problem is that he has little frame of reference outside his father's tall tales. So, William reviews the stories his father has told him and seeks out those who knew him to try to know his father before the old man dies.

My problem is that I'm heartless. I took long enough to grow up, so now I don't look at the world with childlike wonder. Big Fish is a rousing attempt to recapture the feeling that your parent is the most powerful, most interesting person in the world. So, where people I saw the movie with were tearing up at the end, I saw it as the logical conclusion to the movie. It's a matter of taste. I'm not someone who delves into regression . . . well, ever. Reverting to a child doesn't interest me. For those it does, Big Fish is for you.

Visually, there are a lot of Tim Burton elements in Big Fish, though they are nowhere near as dark or big as in some of his other films. Instead, Burton's distinctive style comes into play in introducing new characters and new places. It's easy to tell what Burton wants you to see in this movie. Unlike something like Batman Returns, where Burton gives viewers a big canvas and lets your eye look around for the significant movement, Big Fish often keeps the camera focused closely on the action or widens out to big shots where there is only one character moving.

The characters in Big Fish are quirky and fun, though there is some element to the movie that simply feels like it is being quirky for the sake of being a Burton film, not out of any organic sense of how the story is being told. For example, the contrast between Danny DeVito's diminutive circus ringleader and the giant Karl establishes two intriguing, characters. That DeVito's character turns out to be a werewolf as well just seems a ridiculous addition.

Outside that sense, though, the characters are interesting and - as one might expect - bigger than life. The essential characters, however are Ed and Will Bloom. Ed is characterized perfectly as the kind old patriarch in the present tense and the eager, adventurous hero in his stories. The personification of the young Ed Bloom fits perfectly the Ed that he has become at this late stage of his life.

Similarly, Will is portrayed quite well as a son desperate to know his father, eager to cut through all of the layers to get to the truth. Will is very easy to relate to as the audience feels very connected with his desire to get to the reality of his father's life. The character's clear flaw is in his belief that the amazing world his father has portrayed is not the real world of his father. That is Will's journey.

What ultimately saves the movie is excellent acting by the entire cast. Danny DeVito and Robert Guillaume give smashing performances in their supporting roles. They take small parts in fiction and reality and make them their own. Similarly, Billy Crudup does an excellent job portraying Will. With his determination in his eyes and the way he carries himself, he makes the viewer believe in the importance of his character's quest.

It is Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney who steal the energy of the movie as the young and older Ed Bloom. Ewan brings vitality, youth and energy to the bigger than life Bloom as he enthusiastically travels around on his quests. McGregor's command of fast dialog easily convince the audience that he could get the girl and that's nice to see. Finney's part is to sell the audience on the man Ed has become. He plays the kind patriarch very well, with an ease that makes one believe that Finney - and not just Ed - can tell a killer tall tale.

In the end, this is a fairy tale for adults. If you're the kind of person who finds themselves sitting down occasionally and enjoying a Dr. Seuss book, Big Fish is for you. If you're someone who loves listening to the old fishers down by the dock talking about the big one they caught and you lean forward to hear just how much bigger the fish has become in the current telling of the story, Big Fish is for you. If you like Tim Burton's dark, oppressive, operative films, go back to one you've seen before. If you want to see what Burton's range is, Big Fish is out there. But it may be hard for you to swallow.

For other works by Tim Burton, please check out my reviews of:
Alice In Wonderland
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Batman Returns
Edward Scissorhands


For other film reviews, please visit my index page!

© 2010, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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